What I Did For Love - Chapter 18

Chapter 18: I'm Gonna Make You Love Me!
 
Romantic love reaches out in little ways, showing attention and admiration.
 
Romantic love remembers what pleases a woman, what excites her, and what surprises her.
 
Its actions whisper: you are the most special person in my life.
Charles Stanley
 
I stood at the bedroom window and watched Ranger escort my mother to her car, his hand at the small of her back. Old fashioned chivalry was not dead and although he didn't know it, he'd sealed his own fate with that one little gesture… my mother was hooked! Even from up here I could see that she was glassy eyed, giving him her rapt attention. He chatted with her for a minute or two and waited while she threw me a wave, then closed the car door for her, and watched while she drove off.
 
It was really funny, only all things considered, I didn't know if it was more ha-ha funny or ironic funny. I knew that Ranger thought I was joking when I told him that my mom would be looking to replace Morelli on her 'Trenton's Most Eligible Bachelor' list, but I was dead serious. The minute he made the fatal error of turning on the charm, he was a dead duck. I could see my mother mentally crossing Morelli off that list and penciling Ranger in. I tried to warn him, but would he listen? Nope, not Mr. Know It All. Well, he asked for it and, oh boy, was he gonna get it!
 
I was willing to bet big bucks that my mother would be booting up her laptop and hitting the Food Network website for sugar free-low fat recipes the minute she got home. I knew Ranger had read Sun Tzu's The Art of War, but Sun had nothing on Ellen Plum. Burg women were genetically predisposed to matchmaking and every man they met was marriage material. Now that she had her sites set on Ranger, he wouldn't know what hit him. The fact that Ranger didn't do relationships would be lost on my Mom, it simply wouldn't compute. But that would be Ranger's problem and I wasn't going to worry about it. All I was going to do was sit back and enjoy the show.
 
Ranger crossed the parking lot to the Cayenne and beeped it open. Leaning one arm on top of the car and the other on top of the open door, he must have stood there for a full minute, looking up at me, his lips just tipping up a little. I leaned against the window frame and looked back, giving him my version of his almost smile. Finally, he shook his head and folded himself into the vehicle. When I raised my hand, giving him a little wave, he flashed the headlights in response, pulled out of the parking lot, and headed toward Haywood.
 
I'd really love to have known what he'd been thinking when he was standing out there, looking up at me. Probably he'd been congratulating himself that he'd pulled a fast one on me with all that truce crap. Actually, I'd kiss Vinnie on the mouth before I let Ranger know how glad I was that he'd been the one to call the cease fire. One of us had to, and I was stoked that I'd been able to hold out and he was the one who broke first and called the time out.
 
Ranger had it right when he said that this was a competition, because it was. It was me against him and a break from the hostilities would let me focus on what I needed to get done to win this little contest … proving that the evidence against Joe had been manufactured, and then planted to frame him. Friendly relations with Ranger or not, I wasn't giving up on my plan to clear Joe all by myself so that I'd have the pleasure of telling both guys to go pound salt.
 
But as happy as I was about the peace treaty, the working together part, not so much. Like every guy I'd ever met, okay, so maybe not Albert Kloughn, but every other guy, Ranger thought he was smarter than me and in a lot of ways I was sure he was. But no matter how smart he was, he couldn't fool me and I knew exactly what he was up to. He thought I'd bought his whole spiel about the benefits of us working together and how it would give me a chance to get out of paying his 'price'. Only thing is, I didn't buy it for a second.
 
Ranger liked to be in control of everything and everybody. That's what this whole truce thing was about, Ranger being in control … of me! If we were working together, he'd always know what I was doing, where I was going, who I was talking to, and what I found out. There'd be no way I could keep any secrets from him and that's what he was counting on. Of course, good old Slick Willy Ranger didn't think I'd figure this out and two can play at the same game! Guess Ranger wasn't as smart as he thought he was, huh?
 
I'd have to stay on my toes and make sure that he wasn't able to keep any secrets from me, either! Of course, I wasn't above using any of the information that Ranger dug up to my advantage! Was that sneaky? Dishonest? Oh, you betcha. Would it bother me at all? Hell no! Because if I knew Ranger, and believe me, I did, he'd be doing the exact same thing! Like I said, this was a competition and Ranger didn't like to lose. Ranger was an opportunist and wasn't above employing sneaky tactics to win. But guess what? Neither was I!
 
And I'll admit it, even though fighting with Ranger had been distracting and took a lot of time and energy, I really had great time letting it rip and telling him what I really thought of him, being able to vent a little. I was sick and tired of being pushed around and having to deal with the humongous egos of the men in my life. God knows I wasn't afraid to stand up for myself; after all, I was a Jersey Girl, wasn't I? But it just wasn't fun anymore andwhat I needed was a little 'normal' for a change. Well, as normal as my life ever got, that is. I mean, how normal was it for me to be going after a vampire skip? Never mind. Don't answer that!
 
Considering I hadn't gotten much sleep the night before, add my little trip to Stark Street, throw in the jaunt down the Shore for good measure and it had been one hell of a long day. I was more than ready for it to be over. I pulled down the sun-blocking window shades that my dad had installed in the bedroom, and ******** on the spot. My mom had made up the air mattress like a real bed, with sheets and blankets and pillows and it was calling my name. After spending last night on the floor, I was in heaven. I set the alarm, bless her heart, my Mom thought of everything, and crawled into that bed. I sighed in absolute pleasure and in ten seconds, I was out like a light.
 
I dreamed that I was sprawled out in Ranger's big bed and I could feel him lying next to me. As the night went on, he wrapped his arms around me, then threw his leg over mine, holding me tighter and tighter. Eventually my face was pressed into his chest so hard that I couldn't breathe and I tried, but I couldn't get free.
 
I struggled awake when the alarm went off, and it only took a couple of seconds for me to realize that I was sleeping on the floor again … dammit! No Ranger, no million thread-count sheets. The air mattress had sprung a leak and it was wrapped around me like I was a hot dog in a bun! No wonder I couldn't breathe.
 
By the time I fought my way out of my mattress cocoon I was sweating bullets and cursing a blue streak. Hauling my *** up off the floor, again, I gave the limp tangle of mattress and sheets a good swift kick. And don't worry, the deep psychological meaning of my dream hadn't escaped me. Being wrapped up in Ranger should have made me feel warm and sexy. Instead, I felt overpowered and smothered. Very telling, don't you think?
 
I stomped off to get ready to apprehend Lula's vampire. Thirty minutes later I was showered, shaved, and pulling on a long sleeved, turtleneck shirt. No sense in tempting fate, just in case this guy really was a neck nibbler. I loaded up my cuffs, checked to make sure my stun gun was fully charged, I even took my gun out of my cookie jar, bullets and all!
 
I made a quick stop at Tasty Pastry for coffee and donuts. I'd need the fat and sugar to get me through the Trenton Inquisition I was gonna face at the office. I was pretty sure that the whole Burg already knew that Ranger had taken me to dinner in Belmar last night, and if the Burg knew, Connie and Lula knew, God help me. If I didn't give them extra little tid-bits to spread around, there'd be hell to pay.
 
I'll bet my mother had been in her glory, getting to make all those phone calls instead of receiving them, for a change. After all the humiliating gossip about the crap Morelli had pulled on me, and the nasty rumors his family had started, my dinner with Ranger gave Mom well deserved bragging rights and she was gonna take full advantage of them.
 
I mean, let's face it, he may not have been Burg, but Ranger was officially a catch. He'd lost his anonymity during the Scrog mess when the story was splashed all over the papers, and the Man of Mystery was a mystery no more, at least to the public. Now everybody knew that he was a successful businessman, owner of RangeMan, had a fleet of expensive black cars, and lived in a penthouse. I'll bet he just LOVED that. Yup, Ranger was a catch, all right and these days, Morelli rated about as high as something smelly that you stepped in at the dog park.
 
When I pulled up in front of the office, Lula had her face smooshed against the big glass window watching for me. She hustled over and threw the door open, waving me inside. "Hurry up and get your skinny white *** in here! You gotta tell us all about your date with Batman!"
 
I didn't even try to explain that it wasn't a date, more like a kidnapping. That little detail would be lost on Lula and Connie who'd think it was thrilling and romantic.
 
Connie stood up from her desk and pulled a couple of chairs over to it. "How long were you gonna make us wait for the details?" she demanded as I walked into the office. "Have a heart! We're on pins and needles, Steph! I've been fielding phone calls here and didn't have anything juicy to tell anybody!"
 
Great! Just what I needed … a press agent! I put the coffee and donuts on the desk between us, hoping it would distract them, but no dice! Once we divied it all up and started snarfing it down, Connie and Lula arranged themselves on one side of the desk, chins braced in hands, and waited for me to spill my guts.
 
I'd watched enough politicians and celebrities give press conferences, so I had a pretty good idea of how to handle these two investigative reporters. I made an opening statement, giving them a rundown on last night's activities, heavy on the menu and the scenery, very light on the conversation, and then I took questions.
 
"Natalie Gamboli told me that you and Ranger spent the night in Belmar. True?" Connie asked.
 
I rolled my eyes at her. "NO! Yeesh, gimme a break! We had dinner and then came right back to Trenton. No hanky-panky!"
 
"Just asking!" Connie said defensively.
 
"Just hoping, you mean," I retorted.
 
"Well, true," Connie giggled. "If it can't be me, it might as well be you!" she said. Lula hooted and they high-fived each other. You know you have great girlfriends when they're pulling for you to get laid!
 
"So you and Batman ain't fussin' an' fightin' no more?" Lula asked after she calmed down.
 
"Nope. Not for the time being, at any rate. We called a truce and we're gonna work together. I'll be trying to pick apart the evidence the DA plans to present at Joe's trial, and Ranger'll be investigating the people who had a motive to kill Abruzzi. Hopefully, between the two of us, we can come up with something to clear Joe."
 
"Riiiight!" Connie scoffed. "I know Joe hired Ranger, but you want to do this … why, exactly?" She folded her arms and leaned back in her chair, skepticism written all over her face.
 
Good question. "Okay, so maybe I want to kick Joe in the balls or beat him to a bloody pulp for the way he treated me, but still and all, I know he didn't kill Abruzzi. I can't just sit by and do nothing, I couldn't live with myself."
 
"Bleeding heart!" Lula muttered under her breath.
 
Connie snorted. "You've always had a soft spot for Morelli. Look at all the **** he's pulled on you over the years and you never called him on any of it. He can't be that good in bed!" She shook her head as a thought struck her. "Please don't tell me you're gonna let him get away with this too!"
 
"Hey, wait just a damn minute!" Lula sat up bolt upright in her chair. "You ain't thinkin' about getting' back with that dirt bag, are you? After the way he treated you? Girl, I will kick your *** around the block!" I was a little surprised at Lula's reaction.
 
I blew out a deep breath. I'd worked really hard not to examine my feelings on the subject of Joe just yet, and I didn't know how to answer Lula. "I'm not thinking anything at this point, Lula. But I really want to find out what happened, why he kicked me to the curb like that. There had to be a reason. I need to know what that was all about." I did a palms up, shoulder shrug sort of thing.
 
Lula harrumphed, "I guess I can understand layin' the past to rest before you can move on to the future, but don't you go givin' him another chance. That cat already used up all his nine lives!"
 
"No ****!" Connie confirmed.
 
"Ya know," Lula said, "I still can't figure out why Ranger'd agree to help Joe out. I mean, how much could Joe afford to pay him? What's he got that Ranger would want?" She sat chewing on her donut and I could practically see the gears turning and the light bulb go on over her head. Her eyes widened, her mouth dropped open, and she turned very slowly to look at me. ****! "Heeeeeey …" she started, looking over at Connie and pointing her donut at me.
 
"Yeah," Connie looked at me, thinking hard. "What exactly is Joe paying Ranger anyway? Or should I say, 'Who'?" Connie gave a slow, satisfied smile. Her eyes slid to Lula and they nodded at each other. Uh-oh.
 
Even if they guessed the truth, there was no way in hell I was gonna tell those two about The Deal between Ranger and Joe. I didn't even want to think about what would happen if they found out! They'd hound me to death and I'd have to change my name and move to Bolivia just to get away from them!
 
"Whoa, wait a minute," I chimed in. "Let's not go jumping to any conclusions here. All I know is that Joe called Ranger from prison and hired him to try and find out who really killed Abruzzi. Nobody told me what their arrangement is. But after everything that's happened, do you really think I'd be dumb enough to pick up any more tabs for Morelli?" I stood in front of them with my fists planted firmly on my hips.
 
"Okay, okay!" Lula slumped back in her seat, clearly disappointed. "But I still want to know how Morelli's gonna pay Ranger."
 
"As soon as you find out, you're gonna tell us, right?" Connie demanded. "RIGHT?"
 
I shot her a snotty salute. "Aye, aye, Captain!"
 
"Sorry," Connie gave a shrug. "Personally, I always secretly thought that Ranger killed Abruzzi to protect you," she said with a sigh.
 
I snorted and rolled my eyes. "Oh please!" I couldn't let them know that I had thought the exact same thing myself.
 
"I think you been readin' too many romance novels, Connie," Lula quipped, licking donut icing off her fingers.
 
"Maybe, but it is kind of a romantic, and it strikes me as the kind of thing Ranger would do." Apparently Connie didn't have any trouble reconciling murder with romance. Of course, considering who her Family was, I guess she had a kind of skewed idea of romance. Personally, I'm more of a 'say it with flowers', not dead bodies, kind of gal.
 
I couldn't help myself and the more I thought about it, the more I cracked up. I could come up with a lot of adjectives to describe Ranger: hot, courageous, intelligent, dangerous, secretive, sexy … but romantic? No. The very last word I'd use was 'romantic'! Somehow I just couldn't see him leaving love notes or bringing flowers, arranging candlelight dinners or picnics on the beach. Nope. Of all the things he was, romantic wasn't one of them and I snorted at the thought of a romantic Ranger.
 
"Oh, come on! Don't you think that man would make the perfect pirate?" Connie said with a sigh. "Now that's romantic!"
 
Okay! That only made it worse. I laughed so hard my stomach ached and I had tears in my eyes. "Ranger as Captain Jack Sparrow!" I managed to choke out, so not romantic. Lula choked and snorted her coffee, and Connie looked at the two of us in disgust.
 
"Oh you two are impossible!" she snapped and pulled a paperback book out of her desk drawer, turning it to show us the cover. "Look at this and tell me who you see!"
 
Lula and I finally contained ourselves and obediently looked at the book cover. A tall muscled, dark haired god, stood spread legged, sword in hand, on the deck of a pirate ship, the skull and crossbones flying behind him. Thigh high boots, tight black pants and a billowy white shirt ripped open to his waist showed off his fabulous body.
 
He gazed down hungrily at the blue eyed girl draped over his other arm, his eyes blazing, his nostrils flared, long hair whipping in the wind. Her long curly brown hair was loose, her heaving bosoms in danger of escaping the tattered remnants of her dress, her lips parted, her body language saying, 'Take me! I'm yours!'
 
I had to agree with Connie. Ranger could have posed for that cover. And except for the heaving bosoms (mine weren't big enough to heave), there was a slight resemblance to yours truly.
 
"I've seen you two look at each other just like that!" Connie stated, tapping the cover with a blood red fingernail.
 
"Two hundred years ago I'll bet that's what he would have been … the captain of a pirate ship, pillaging and plundering his way across the high seas. Don't you think he'd make one hell of a swashbuckler?" Connie sighed and rested her chin in her hand, a dreamy smile on her face.
 
I turned to say something sarcastic to Lula, only to find her eyes glazed over too. "Oh yeah! She murmured. "He could swash my buckle any old day!" My eyes rolled so far back in my head they were in danger of making a complete loop! I guess I wasn't any more romantic than Ranger was.
 
I felt a familiar little tingle on the back of my neck and turned my head to find the man in question standing behind us. I guess he and I were back on the same wavelength and my internal Batman Warning System was working again. All the while we'd been hissing and spitting at each other, that telltale shiver I always felt when he was around had disappeared. Now it was back and I found it to be oddly comforting.
 
The girls were so into their fantasy that they didn't even notice that Ranger had come in the back way and was standing in the doorway listening to them talk. He looked from Lula to Connie, then turned to me and quirked an eyebrow.
 
"Yo, Ranger!" I chirped. "Or should I say, Yo-ho-ho," and I grinned at him. He looked so straight-faced that I thought he hadn't caught on that they were talking about him.
 
"Ladies," Ranger's velvet voice washed over us.
 
Connie froze for a second and turned bright red, then practically pounced on her computer, tapping away at the keys a mile a minute. Lula jumped up, grabbed her purse and muttered something about needing to get to the Dollar Store and dashed out the front door. We all heard her squeal away from the curb and fly down the street.
 
Ranger came into the office to drop a couple of body receipts on Connie's desk. She never lifted her eyes from her computer monitor, typing like a mad woman and only nodded when he asked her to send the checks to RangeMan. I thought I heard Connie whimper when he nonchalantly picked up the romance novel that she'd left sitting on her desk.
 
He took a look at the cover and the corner of his mouth twitched. I was pretty sure he wanted to smile but all he did was give a barely perceptible head shake, the Ranger equivalent of yelling 'Jeeze Louise!' and rolling his eyes.
 
He put the book back on the desk and turned to me. "Babe," Ranger held up a couple of files, then tipped his head toward Vinnie's office, the next best place for a private talk since one of our ground rules was no trips to the alley. I got up and strolled over, Ranger stepping back to let me into the office ahead of him.
 
As I passed, Ranger lowered his mouth close to my ear and breathed, "Arrrrgh!" as he closed the office door. Guess I was wrong about him not hearing the conversation.
 
I shook my head. "Doesn't work without the peg leg and parrot."
 
"How about I let you play with my sword?" and he gave me his wolf grin.
 
I snorted. "You are so bad! And you're breaking one of the ground rules … no double entendres! Remember?" I shook my finger at sternly.
 
"Technically we aren't working together yet," he said. "At least not until I give you these." He leaned back against the door and held the files out to me, playfully pulling them back when I reached for them.
 
I snatched them out of his hand and flipped open the first one. It contained a copy of the file I had snagged from the lawyer's office, the list of evidence the DA planned on presenting at Joe's trial. "Yeah, I already have this but thanks anyway."
 
Ranger looked at me in surprise. Okay, so he raised an eyebrow, same thing. "Do I want to know how you got a hold of it?"
 
I shrugged. "Does it matter?" I could be mysterious too!
 
"Guess not." He gave me a serious look. "Just remember that we're supposed to be working together now; neither one of us can go off on our own without letting the other know what we're doing."
 
"Oh, have no fear, I remember," I assured him. "Just be sure that you do, too," I said with a big phony smile. "We both have to play by the same rules," I reminded him and he gave me a single nod.
 
I opened the second file and he tapped it, "This is what I've come up with so far."
 
I leaned my butt against Vinnie's desk and glanced over a two page list of names and addresses, each with a notation of their association to Abruzzi. I looked up at Ranger expectantly. "The people who would benefit in some way from Abruzzi's death," he said matter of factly.
 
My eyes bugged out. "So far? Wow!" I said in shock and looked down at the list again. "Real popular guy, huh?" There had to be at least twenty names. I had no idea how we were going to weed through them.
 
"We have our work cut out for us, that's for sure." Ranger said.
 
"No joke," I muttered, looking over the list that included Abruzzi's family members, business associates, victims, and ex-wives.
 
"Speaking of which, where do you want to set up shop? Your place, or mine?" He sounded nonchalant, but it was really a loaded question.
 
I thought about it for a second or two. There was a lot riding on our little collaboration, not just for Joe, but for me, too, especially since I could very possibly be paying Ranger's price, whatever that price really was. Actually I was torn. On one hand, I knew I should sit Ranger down and find out just exactly what it was that he expected from me as payment. On the other, I was scared to death to find out just exactly what he expected from me as payment. You see my dilemma?
 
I mean, I knew what the first deal we had made had been, and I could only think that this one would be more of the same … a lot more, like sexual slavery more. I found myself thinking about giving blow jobs on command, or that this deal could give a whole new meaning to the phrase, 'Assume the position' … for me at least. Just that thought alone made me shiver, but from anticipation or fear, I didn't know.
 
"I smell something burning, Babe." Ranger was eyeing me and I brought myself back to the here and now. I realized that I was fanning myself with the files and I felt myself blush all the way from my toes on up.
 
"Well," I stuttered, "my place doesn't even have a chair to sit on, so unless you plan on working on the floor, that's out."
 
"We could always work on your bed?" The corners of his mouth curved up a tiny bit.
 
I glared at him. "You're breaking the rules again! And anyway, no can do. The air mattress sprung a leak last night, so I wound up on the floor again. I've had enough floor time, thankyouverymuch." And no way was I getting anywhere near a bed with that man!
 
He strolled over to where I was perched on Vinnie's desk and looked down at me, gently running his fingers through my hair and tucking it behind my ears. "Well, I guess that only leaves my apartment."
 
Gulp! "Much as I love your apartment, I don't think that'll work either." I slid off the desk and inched away from him, "How about we find some neutral territory?"
 
He gave me a half smile. "What's the matter, Babe? Don't you trust me?"
 
I barked out a laugh. "Not for a second!" and I shook my head. "You're already playing fast and loose with the ground rules, buster. Don't make me regret this truce."
 
He held his hands up in surrender. "Okay, I give. I'll be all business from now on."
 
"More like funny business," I quipped. "Seriously though, it isn't a matter of trust. It's a matter of practicality. I'd like to be able to come and go at will and I'd just feel weird barging into your personal space at all times of the day and night. Plus, we have to have computers and desks and room for files and all kinds of stuff."
 
"Then how about one of the conference rooms? Is that neutral enough? I can have computers and printers installed and have a couple of desks moved in."
 
"Sure," I said. "That'd be great. Can we get one of those big white erasable boards, too?" I didn't watch Law & Order and CSI for nothing.
 
"No problem. Just let me know what you need and give me a call when you're ready to get to work."
 
"I just have to help Lula with her skip and that shouldn't take too long."
 
"All right." Ranger pulled the door open and we went out into the hallway. "If you want help with your vampire I can send one of the men with you."
 
"That would be Lula's vampire," I grinned. "She tells me that she's all prepared, whatever that means."
 
"Well the offer still stands. If you need help, call. I'll be in the office for the rest of the day." And Ranger headed out the back door.
 
When I walked back into the office Connie finally stopped typing and thumped her head on the desk. "Oh I could just die! I'll never be able to look him in the face again!" she wailed.
 
"I wouldn't worry about that too much, Con," I said. "You don't usually look at his face anyway." At least that made her laugh.
 
Thirty minutes later, we watched Lula circle the block. I guess she was checking to make sure that Ranger had left. Finally she pulled up in front of the office and honked until I came out climbed in.
 
"I ain't never been so embarrassed in my whole life, an' let me tell ya, it ain't easy to embarrass a former ho!" Lula babbled. "Is he mad? Did he say anythin'? Am I gonna have to move to Canada?"
 
"Nah! I think he was secretly flattered." Okay, so I stretched the truth a little.
 
"Yeah? Yeah, I shoulda thought of that. What man don't like flattery? Right?" Lula relaxed her death grip on the steering wheel and started to breathe again.
 
"Riiiight!" I agreed with her. "So … we finally gonna go get your skip or what?"
 
"Yep, I'm all ready. Got everything we need right here in the car!" Lula had apparently gotten over her mortal fear of vampires and pulled away from the curb, headed for Dupont Street, where Ferdie or Damien, take your pick, lived with his mom. "Here," she pulled a Scrunchie off her wrist. "Hurry up and put your hair up in a ponytail."
 
I noticed that she'd pulled her own braids up on top of her head. "And I need to do this … why?"
 
"I been doing a lotta research on vamps. I googled 'em an' I been readin' all them Sookie Stackhouse books. I been watchin' the reruns of Buffy an' I got the DVDs for the whole first season ofTrue Blood an' Blood Ties an' Moonlight. I know all the tricks so don't you worry, I got this all planned out." Lula looked real proud of herself and I got this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
 
"So this is what," I asked as I secured my hair with the Scrunchie, "the official vampire catching hairdo?" I pulled the visor down and checked my new 'do' in the mirror.
 
"Don't be silly! There ain't no such thing!" she said with a snort of derision.
 
"There are no such things as vampires either! All that stuff is just fiction, great for books and movies and TV shows, but not real life." Stephanie Plum, voice of reason, strikes again.
 
"But what if the books are right? What if they really are out there, just waitin' for a chance to come out of the closet … coffin … grave … whatever? We gotta be prepared. I'm thinkin' we could have a whole new sideline here, corner the market … kinda like Ghostbusters but for vampires!" Lula was waaaaay excited about the prospect. I could practically see the dollar signs dancing in her head.
 
"We? We who? We us?" Lula nodded like a mad woman. "Sorry, there's no 'We', no way!" I said firmly. Lula just rolled her eyes.
 
"Just grab the shopping bag," she jerked her thumb toward the back seat. "I got us all kinds of protection." Somehow I didn't think she was talking about condoms. Lula pulled over around the corner from Ferdie's house and started rummaging through the bag. "Stick these in your ponytail so you can get at 'em easy."
 
She handed me a long paper sleeve. "Chopsticks? You want me to put chopsticks in my hair?" I watched as Lula criss-crossed the chopsticks through her own up-do.
 
She rolled her eyes at me. "I couldn't find no stakes at the Dollar Store so I figured these'd do okay. They got flat ends, but I used Connie's electric pencil sharpener an' now they got real good points on 'em. They're gonna work just fine if we gotta stake this guy."
 
"No, Lula! There will be NO staking, no shooting, no violence, no nothing! Got it?" Yeesh! This was as bad as her always wanting to bust a cap up somebody's ***!
 
'Yeah, yeah, yeah," she muttered and dove into the shopping bag again, pulling out about a dozen big fat necklaces. Cheesy, fake rapper bling in shiny gold and silver plastic, they each sported a cross of some kind. "The books didn't say nothin' about crosses, but I figure they're kinda like traditional, ya know?" She handed me a couple but no way was I putting them on.
 
"Lula …" I put a finger to my twitching eye.
 
"Here, put this in your belt," and she handed me a squirt gun. I looked at it in confusion. "It's holy water," she said like I should have known, "in case he has some demon in him … like The Exorcist kid."
 
"Holy Water? Where did you get holy water?" Did I really want to know?
 
"Well," she said a little sheepishly, "Maybe not exactly holy water. There was a whole bunch of people in Saint Jude's so I couldn't just mosey up to the holy water font and load up in front of 'em all, ya know?" She lifted a shoulder in a shrug. "I got the water outta the drinkin' fountain in the church vestibule. But that's the next holiest place, right?"
 
"Oh yeah, sure, holy." I didn't have the heart to tell her that it was the same water as was in the bathrooms. "Look, thanks Lula, but I'm just gonna stick with the old fashioned stuff … stun gun, cuffs, .38 police special if I need it, okay?" I pulled the Scrunchie out of my hair and tried to finger comb it into submission again. Lula took the chopsticks and stuck them into her top knot. She looked like she had an old timey TV antennae on top of her head.
 
"Okay, I guess," she said doubtfully. "But if he fangs ya, don't come cryin' to me!" Lula pulled around the corner, parked in front of the Gooberman house and we got out of the car. It was a nice little house with a neat lawn and planters filled with brightly colored flowers. Not at all the kind of place you'd expect to find vampires lurking.
 
Lula stuffed her water gun into the back of her spandex skirt and slipped about ten of those plastic cross necklaces over her head. I transferred my cuffs to my back pocket, clipped the .38 to my belt and kept the stun gun in my hand. Trenton's own version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I went up the front walk to the door. Lula fiddled with something in her purse while I rang the doorbell.
 
After a minute, a lady, drying her hands on a kitchen towel, opened the door. "Can I help you?" she said pleasantly, looking at me. Her eyes widened a bit when she caught a load of Lula, though.
 
"Good morning, ma'am. We represent Vincent Plum Bail Bonds and we're looking for Ferdie Gooberman, also known as Damien De Vil." I said politely.
 
A pained expression crossed her face and her shoulders slumped. "What's he done now?" she asked with a tired sigh. 
"He missed his court date and we need to take him downtown to reschedule." She nodded her head as she stepped back and waved us into the living room.
 
"He's in the kitchen, eating breakfast," his mom told us, and pointed down the hall. I turned and gave Lula a wink. This was gonna be a piece of cake!
 
We walked into the kitchen and found Ferdie sitting at the table, shoveling waffles into his mouth. He wasn't wearing the Goth makeup, and I guessed that the black hair from his mug shot was a wig because his devil horns were camouflaged by his own naturally frizzy red afro. His vampire fang dental appliance was sitting on the table next to a glass of red juice, cranberry I guess, or pomegranate. Gone were the goat eyes, he was wearing Coke bottle glasses and reading a comic book.
 
Ferdie glanced up and right away knew who we were. He grabbed his fangs and snapped them in, jumped up from the table and shoved it at us, sending plates and food flying. He made a break for the door but we blocked his path and Lula pulled out her holy water pistol and unloaded on him. Ferdie yelled, "What the ****, lady!" but he didn't go up in smoke or fall to the floor writhing in pain.
 
Then Ferdie morphed into Damien and crouched slightly, curled his hands into claws and pulled his lips back in a snarl, showing his fangs and hissing at us. 'Buffy' took one look at him, made an 'Eeep' sound, and beat feet for the front door, leaving me to deal with him all by myself. Just friggin' swell!
 
"Knock it off, Ferdie. Let's just go downtown and get this over with." I pulled out my cuffs but before I had a chance to move, Ferdie lunged and shoved me across the kitchen, then took off running down the hall. I pushed off the cabinets and tackled him, the two of us winding up in a tangle on the floor. Ferdie knocked the stun gun out of my hand, but I managed to snap one cuff on his wrist.
 
He scrambled into the living room, with me hot on his heels. We bolted past his mother, who stood in stunned silence, watching us crash through her house and out the front door onto the lawn. I snagged the dangling handcuff and held onto it with both hands, digging my heels into the ground, or trying to, that is.
 
The grass was wet and slick and I slipped and slid across the lawn with Ferdie, screaming at the top of his lungs and cursing up a blue streak, dragging me along behind him. He jerked me around, trying to shake me loose, and my feet slid out from under me, taking me down to the ground. He pulled me in a circle, slowly at first, then spinning faster and faster with my head getting closer to the ground. I guess we looked like Olympic ice skaters executing a death spiral. By now, I was screaming too!
 
When he couldn't lose me, he pounced, straddling me, fangs bared, his hand balled up into a fist. I couldn't tell if he was gonna punch me or bite me or both! Lula burst through the shrubbery, a large plastic container in her hand. "Hey, Damien," she yelled and when he looked up at her, she dumped about a pound of garlic powder on him. He screamed in pain as it hit his eyes, and started to cough and choke from inhaling the stuff. A few seconds later he stiffened, then rolled off me and lay unconscious on the grass.
 
"I did it! I did it! See? It worked! It really worked! The garlic got him!" Lula yelled, practically jumping up and down for joy! I suspected that Ferdie's unconscious state had less to do with Lula's garlic powder and more to do with his mother standing over him, my stun gun in her hand. I crawled over to Ferdie and flipped him over onto his stomach, cuffing his hands behind his back.
 
Unfortunately, Lula had covered me in garlic powder too and as much as I tried to shake it out of my hair and clothes, both were wet from rolling in the grass and the garlic powder turned to glue. I couldn't escape it. I'd gotten a face full. My nose ran and burned, and I started to sneeze, great huge window rattling sneezes, one after another. I coughed and wheezed. My eyes watered and garlicky tears ran down my cheeks, and I couldn't spit the taste out of my mouth … I was a mess.
 
On the up side, I'd probably have garlic breath for the next month. At least I wouldn't have to worry about Ranger making a pass at me anytime soon! Vampires either, for that matter. No respectable creature, living or dead, would have anything to do with me!
 
The laughter caught my attention and only then did I realize that we had an audience, and I'm not just talking about the neighbors all of whom came out to watch the show. Two big black SUVs were parked at the curb. Hal and Ram were busy with their video phones, and Binkie had a digital camera, preserving the whole episode for posterity. Worst of all, Ranger was leaning back against one of the SUVs, ankles crossed, arms folded over his chest, full 200 watt smile on his face. Son of a *****!
 
"Hey guys! Enjoying the show?" I tried to narrow my swollen eyes.
 
"Yes ma'am," Hal said with a laugh. "Lula told Tank how she was going to apprehend this FTA and we didn't want to miss it."
 
"Oh just friggin' swell!" I muttered to nobody in particular. I could see this little video on a perpetual loop at RangeMan.
 
Ranger strolled over and pulled me to my feet and Ram hoisted the still unconscious Ferdie over his shoulder. "I'll take him down to the police station for you," Ram offered. He sniffed the air around us. "I'm gonna have to hit Pino's," he said with a grin. "I'm craving a little Italian." He took off with Ferdie and the other guys, leaving Ranger and me standing on the lawn.
 
"I'm craving a little Italian, too," Ranger said to me softly. "You're making my mouth water." He brushed garlic powder off my face. "But then, you always do." He bent slightly and touched the corner of my mouth with the tip of his tongue. His, "Ummmmmm…" almost made my knees buckle, and absolutely ruined my panties. So much for the garlic keeping Ranger away.
 
"Ladies," he said to Lula and Mrs. Gooberman who stood there watching the whole exchange, stunned and slack jawed. "I'll see you later," he tugged my hair gently and got into his SUV. He was gone long before any of us snapped out of our Ranger induced stupor.
 
I got my stun gun back from Mrs. Gooberman who was stoked that she had stunned Ferdie. She wanted to know where she could get one of her own. Ferdie'd been nothing but trouble for the last few years and I had the feeling that he'd be shaping up or shipping out of the old homestead before too long, especially now that mom was armed and dangerous.
 
"Garlic powder?" I confronted Lula as we drove back to the bonds office. She didn't have a speck of it on her, naturally.
 
"Weeeeell," she whined. "The Dollar Store didn't have anythin' else and it says it's 100 percent, pure garlic!" She held up the empty jug to show me. "See?" I just grunted in reply. "I'm surprised that holy water didn't stop him," she went on. "I guess it wasn't holy enough, huh?" I was too tired to roll my eyes.
 
I didn't go into the office, just threw Connie a wave, climbed into my car, opened all the windows, and went straight home. All I wanted was a big tube of Colgate, a bottle of Scope, a super size bottle of Pantene, and a gallon of body wash … any flavor but garlic! A pack of matches to burn my clothes wasn't such a bad idea either. I'd have to throw them right in the dumpster or risk my apartment smelling like an Italian deli for God only knew how long. A nap sounded good too, but without a bed … ah well. Maybe this afternoon I'd go shopping for a cheap mattress.
 
I pulled into my usual spot by the dumpster and spotted my mother's car on the other side of the parking lot. Great! If I hadn't stunk to high heaven I would have waited until she left. I really didn't want her to see me like this; we'd been getting along so well lately. She was probably here to patch the air mattress. I trudged into the building, mashing the button for the elevator. I knew it was only one flight, but I just couldn't face the stairs. The elevator doors opened on a beaming Mrs. Bestler. "All aboard! Floor, please," she asked happily.
 
"Second floor," she sang out when I answered her. "Furniture, bed linens, curtains, lamps, accessories, and good looking men." I couldn't help but smile. She gave a whole new meaning to 'Men's Department'.
 
I smiled all the way to my apartment door. Toeing off my sneakers, I stuffed my socks into them, leaving them on the pretty new welcome mat my mother probably brought over. I had already pulled my shirt out of my pants as I walked in the door and was about to haul it over my head, when I stopped short. Holy Crap! I had walked into the wrong apartment! This wasn't my place. I must have gotten off on the wrong floor! I held my breath and backed out as quietly as I could so I wouldn't scare the crap out of the tenant. I should have realized my mistake when I saw that door mat but I wondered why my key had worked in the lock.
 
As I snuck out the door, I glanced at the number. 2B, that was me! What the hell? I stepped back into the apartment and stopped in the little foyer, looking around. I recognized Aunt Tootie's coffee table in the living room, but not the cushy brown micro-fiber couch sitting behind it. Grandma Mazur's table and chairs were in the dining alcove, but I'd never seen the rug that was under them before. There were tables and lamps and a flat screen TV with a DVD player and pictures on the wall. It looked like one of those HGTV design stars had been at work here and this was the surprise reveal.
 
I just stood there with my mouth hung open. Could an overdose of garlic make you hallucinate? "Mom?" I called.
 
"Oh hello, dear," my mother hustled out of the bedroom. "What do you think? Do you like it?" She waved her hand around the room.
 
"I LOVE it! Did you and Dad do all this? I've only been gone a couple of hours, how did you get all this done?" I just stood there, gaping.
 
"Well, no actually. We had a lot of help. Ranger's men went with your dad to Joe's house and … what was the word they used? Oh yes, they 'liberated' your furniture and the rest of your clothes." My mom actually giggled. "Apparently Anthony wasn't too happy about it. And even better, Angie will have a fit!" She was practically giddy.
 
"Okay, so how about the rest of this stuff?" This wasn't furniture from some resale shop or from Goodwill and there was no way my parents could afford all this. "Where did it come from?"
 
"Oh, Ranger brought it over," Mom said with a huge smile and grabbed my arm. "Come and see the bedroom!" she gushed and pulled me across the living room.
 
"Ranger?" I mumbled dumbly.
 
"Yes, dear," she said with a happy sigh.
 
"Ranger brought me furniture?" I must have sounded like a simpleton, but I was beyond stunned.
 
"Yes! Isn't that romantic?"
 
Romantic … There was that word again …
 
Okay! What was going on here? What the hell was Ranger up to? And why did I feel like this was a conspiracy?
StephanieManoso StephanieManoso
31-35, F
1 Response May 16, 2012

Laughing again. I think Steph reminds me of Goldie Hawn. You are a specialist in your research on psychology of imagination, daydreaming and real social behavior. Again great writing!